Can South Africa afford free higher education? President Zuma has unveiled a plan to make higher education free for poor students, but with the country's budget already under pressure this risks causing big financial strains.

Author:Raji, Rafiq

In December, South Africa's President Jacob Zuma announced that the government would introduce free higher education for poor and working-class students from 2018. The announcement came just before the conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) that would choose his successor as leader of the party. As he was fighting for his political life and about to lose one of his key levers of power, the move looked like a last-minute attempt by Zuma to burnish his tarnished legacy.

He may have succeeded up to a point. Party stalwarts could not oppose the move. It is such a popular and sensitive issue that once the policy was declared, it would be politically difficult for any cadre, no matter how senior, to come out against it. And true to type, Zuma ensured that the one person who might have reservations about the new policy, finance minister Malusi Gigaba, would have little choice in the matter.

Naming a figure

However, two weeks later, at a press conference organised by Hlengiwe Mkhize, the higher education minister, ahead of the start of the university academic session in early January, Gigaba was neither present nor did he send a representative, leading to speculations that the Treasury might be at odds with the new policy.

Mkhize did provide some clarification, though: "We got clearance from Treasury that as long as we are within the parameters we will get the money."

But how much would it cost? Initially, no one could say. That changed in about mid-January--Gigaba now had a figure. It would cost the fiscus about 12bn rand ($984m) to fund free higher education, but details would have to wait for the budget in February. This much he insisted, though: the plan would be implemented over a period of eight years to ensure it does not put the authorities' already strained finances into further disarray. "It is about how to manage the process and implement it in a sustainable manner without having to breach the fiscal expenditure ceiling," Gigaba told reporters. Ever the team player, Gigaba also put in a few words in Zuma's defence: "If the president had not acted this year to provide some funding it would have resulted in further protests."

Self-fulfilling downgrade

With the fiscal deficit at about 15bn rand (4.3% of GDP), another billion dollars would not be a material deterioration. While preferring to suspend full judgement till the exact details are revealed, John Ashbourne, Africa economist at London-based Capital Economics...

To continue reading

Request your trial